Math Isn’t Normal On The SAT
Written By Sean R, Tutor To The Stars For Enhanced Prep
If you are “good” at math (or at least comfortable with math), that’s fantastic! However, when good math students encounter a practice SAT/ACT or even an AP exam for the first time, they often don’t perform as well as their talents indicate. This doesn’t mean these students are secretly “bad” at math, they were doing math in an unfamiliar situation!
Here are some basic tips to keep in mind when attacking math on standardized exams.
Know the Rules
Doing math on your homework is different than doing math on an exam in class—why is that? It’s simple: the “rules” are different for homework than on exams! As with school exams, you will find this same difference applies when taking the SAT, ACT, or other standardized exams.
Before you even get started on your SAT, you need to make sure you know the “rules” for the math portions of this exam. What math topics will be expected of you? What resources will be provided and allowed? If you don’t know the answers to these questions come test day, it will be like walking on to a soccer field thinking you can use your hands to control the ball (unless you’re a goalkeeper, of course!).
For example, you use a lot of math in your chemistry and physics classes, but calculators are not allowed on the SAT II Chemistry and SAT II Physics tests! You can use calculators on the entire AP Physics exam, but only on certain sections of the AP Chemistry and AP Calculus exams!
Equip Yourself with the Right Tools
In many cases, this means getting a calculator for the math tests/sections. However, the right calculator is one you are comfortable using and can use efficiently. If you’re taking the SAT/ACT and you know your scientific calculator like the back of your hand, go ahead and use it! You don’t need to break the bank for a fancy graphing calculator you don’t know how to use!
For the SAT II Math tests and the AP Calculus AB/BC tests, there are questions that require the use of a graphing calculator. However, the rule still stands: use a calculator you already know well (the difference between a TI-83 and a TI-89 is just six numbers in this case). If you are new to one, make sure you spend some time getting familiar with it.
If you aren’t allowed a calculator for the test (e.g. SAT II Physics, SAT II Chemistry, MCAT), you’ll need to rely on your other tools—estimation, algebraic manipulation, and use of scientific notation—in order to make the math manageable. In either case, don’t do a bunch of math in your head; use your other tool: your test booklet (or noteboard if you are given one)!
Don’t forget your strategy (or your algebra)
Remember, these are still standardized multiple-choice tests (this is true with parts of AP exams). That means time saving strategies can still work in many situations. Don’t over-rely on your calculator; if there is a more efficient way to get the correct answer (e.g. algebra, POE), use it! If you’re not sure how to solve a problem, or if it seems time-consuming, mark the problem, skip it, and come back.
For those who cannot use a calculator, you will have to lean on these strategies a bit more. Remember, a multiple-choice test doesn’t care how you (legally) arrived at the correct answer, just if it is correct.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
As I said, back in #1, standardized tests have their own rules. Thus, you need to practice doing your math using these rules. Get familiar with your scratch paper, your calculator (or estimation tools), and the format/timing of the exam. The more you are able to practice, the more comfortable (and confident) you will be when the big day arrives!